How I Studied Abroad on Vacation

So when did you fall in love with travel?

It all happened for me about 9 years ago when I left home and everything I knew—my friends and family, and my hectic life as a college junior— to go abroad for the first time to study Spanish in Argentina. Six months later, I reluctantly returned back to the States feeling as though I was leaving my heart behind.

The romance of travel for me is experiencing a place the way a local does, having conversations and experiences a guidebook couldn’t show you. In Argentina, it was the discussions with cab drivers, practicing Spanish with our zipline instructor after our aerial ride over Mendoza, and the endless late-night conversations over coffee with my host family (yes, the Argentines have coffee before bed too!).

So naturally I wanted to reignite that old flame, to create a similar experience in Europe, particularly Portugal since that’s where I would most of my time.

So how did I study abroad on vacation?

I went to grocery stores and local markets

Aside from the fact that I needed something quick to eat for breakfast before I started my day exploring the city, I liked the idea of visiting the market in a new country. You can learn a lot about a culture from its grocery store and its food. Plus, you can save a little money by making your own meals. I didn’t buy much of course, just some blueberries and yogurt, but I did share a homemade meal with a fellow traveler who was inspired to make salted cod (a signature Portuguese dish). It was delicious and we completed the experience by having a local Portuguese port wine.

If you’re like me and you don’t like to cook, why not try EatWith or a similar experience? I met a fellow solo traveler who did an Airbnb experience where his host, a fantastic chef, cooked for him and a few other guests in his own home. We’re talking a five-course meal, good conversation, and lots of wine. Later the chef’s friend showed up with more wine and the evening lasted into the wee hours of the morning. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to have this kind of experience, but this is the kind of cultural exchange I aim for when I travel and the ultimate opportunity to get to know a place as more than a tourist.

I conversed with locals

Several months before I traveled to Europe, I began studying European Portuguese. By the time I got to Lisbon, I was very eager to practice my Portuguese conversation skills. Talking with locals is how I learned where to watch the sunset over the Douro River (but only with a beer and a snack), where the best Açaí bowls are in Cascais—especially tasty after a good surf lesson, and that the Prime Minister of Portugal swims in the ocean for exercise with his guards.

I also learned that my Airbnb host likes Migos (he did me one better and introduced me to the wonderful music of Peggy Gou) and what Remote Year is.

Chatting with locals is perhaps the best way to get to know a place. Indulge your curiosity and listen as people open up about their history, culture, and the idiosyncrasies of their home. A good conversation will help you learn about your destination and its people, and you may even learn something about yourself!

I went to the movies

After taking a free walking tour of downtown Lisbon, walking around on my own for several hours and taking a trillion pictures, and having lunch, I was ready for a little rest but definitely not ready to go back to my Airbnb.

My goal had been to see a Portuguese anyway (you know, to practice my language skills) so I asked the lovely employees at Há Cafe No Alfarrabista there was a cinema near. I was in luck because there was a Lisbon International Film Festival, Motel X, at Cinema São Jorge. Horror films from all over the world were featured, and although I didn’t get to see a movie dubbed in Portuguese like I wanted, watching Mary Shelley in English with Portuguese subtitles actually did help me learn more Portuguese. Also, I didn’t eat popcorn in the theatre. Instead, I opted for pastel de natas. Muito gostoso!

It might seem counterintuitive to do on vacation what you would do at home, but if you’re in a new culture and country it will definitely be a different experience and an opportunity to peak into the lives and routines of those around you. If you desire to move to every place you’ve ever visited (like me!), this is a good way to try out what life would be like before you move. Even if that’s not your plan, you’ll curate some authentic encounters and most definitely a friend or two!


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